The Prodigal Son — Lessons for Us All

A friend of ours died of cancer many years ago. She had a heroic passing, in the sense that she surrendered her life joyfully to God.

In the memorial service that Swami Kriyananda gave after her death, we listened to a recording where she described an incident that happened fifteen years earlier.

She was staying in a hotel on a business trip, and she had a cold, so she was sipping codeine cough syrup. And, in her typically absentminded way, she overdosed and suddenly found herself alone in a hotel room, far from home, on the point of dying.

Guercino, <em>Return of the Prodigal Son</em>
Guercino, Return of the Prodigal Son

She passed out, and when she woke up she was thoroughly confused and thought that it would somehow help if she could get to the bathroom. So she crawled to the bathroom, and in her confusion she was, as she put it, embracing the toilet bowl. She was staring into the water when the thought came, “Divine Mother, is this how it’s all going to end?”

It seemed so humiliating and ridiculous, but she thought that it might be her last moment, and so she said, in her childlike way, “I am a good devotee, and I love God.”

At that point, she saw a bright light, and her consciousness began to exit her body through the spine.

She floated up into a tunnel of light, and she knew that she was on her way out of this life. But Paula had a great affection for beautiful clothes, and in that moment she remembered that she had put a special outfit on layaway at a store. And as she was soaring away from this world through the tunnel of light, she suddenly remembered the outfit and came rushing back into her body.

Everyone laughed at the story, because it had such a humorous ending. But there were serious lessons in it as well.

There are so many things that we might think of saying in the moment of death. But what occurred to Paula to say was the defining fact of her life: that she was a child of God.

There’s a famous story in the Bible, of a son who asks his father for his inheritance and squanders it on loose living. In the end, he finds himself completely impoverished, sleeping in a barn with the pigs and eating the scraps from the farmer’s table.

In his despair, it occurs to him that his father will at least treat him better than his present circumstances. So he stumbles back to his father’s house, hoping to live in the barn and eat the leftovers from his father’s table. Because he realizes that he is completely unworthy of his father’s love.

But when his father sees him coming, his response is the opposite of what the man expects. The father welcomes him with open arms and dresses him in fine clothes, puts a precious ring on his finger, and calls to the servants to prepare a celebration.

When we think of the story, we’re reminded that there’s a tremendous difference between how we view ourselves, and how we are seen by the Lord.

Our Heavenly Father loves us without condition. And yet the Bhagavad Gita takes care to tell us the many things we must do before God can receive us fully into Himself.

We must give up our desires, we must learn to concentrate our minds, we must stop being restless, we must do this and that, and then only will we be able to return to our Father’s home.

Although there’s no question that God loves us unconditionally, there is also the unbendable fact that the spiritual path requires us to be very active.

In the path of Self-realization, we understand that we must give all of our energy to God before He can free us. And the masters have given us practical techniques for accomplishing this total self-offering.

But then, because we are rational beings, the thought comes that we need to organize and quantify it all – make the spiritual path tidy and wrap it in a neat system that will satisfy the rational mind.

In the West, we’re particularly enamored of the intellect. In this part of the world, we love to discover how things are related, and to analyze how we can do things more efficiently. And because the intellect can only divide and analyze, the intellectual way of seeking answers is to set up a fact-finding committee and sit down together and think about the data.

Around the year 300 A.D., the intellectual theologians in the church got together and voted on which parts of scripture were true and should be included in the Bible. But the problem is, we can’t truly understand the scriptures by simply pulling them apart and voting on the pieces. Truth comes by direct, revealed perception. All of the great scientific inventions have been achieved by this process – by intuition. People recognize a truth in a flash of insight, and then they have to exert the mental energy to demonstrate it in terms that will satisfy the intellect. After Albert Einstein announced the Theory of Relativity, he spent years carefully presenting it in rational terms in order to convince the other scientists.

This is the way we go about the spiritual path here in the West. “I’ll do X number of Kriyas and I’ll become free. I’ll energize twice a day for X years and I’ll learn to withdraw the energy from my body and enter samadhi. I’ll do a certain number of affirmations and prayers every day and I’ll raise my consciousness.” In fact, the Bhagavad Gita says that this is a very good way to proceed, because good habits have a power to change us.

But the flip side is that we can only form a deep relationship with heart, not with the mind.

Like the Prodigal Son, we’ve squandered our inheritance. We’ve thought, “Let me first get everything I want, by being clever and working hard, and then I’ll try to be good.” And there’s nothing evil about that kind of thinking, because it’s part of the long process of finding out what works.

I had a conversation with a friend, at a time when she was going through a very difficult breakup. To her credit, she came for counseling, because she felt there was something wrong with her attitude. And it quickly became obvious what was wrong. Her unspoken feeling was, “I want him to suffer.” She didn’t come out and say it, but that’s what it came down to – “He’s made me suffer, and I want him to suffer, too.”

It’s a natural response. But it’s how we squander our divine inheritance. On the one hand, God gives us countless opportunities to be channels for His divine love. But then the ego and the intellect step in and we start to weigh and measure – “He was terrible to me, and I have every right to treat him just as badly.”

And then we’re surprised to find ourselves living in the barn with the pigs, like the prodigal son in the story. Because negative attitudes invariably end up causing us to suffer. And we can’t figure out how we got there. “What did I do to deserve this?”

But when we’ve suffered long enough, we turn to the Father, and He gives us a touch of His love. And then we begin to want to love Him more completely, because we recognize Him as our own.

This is a point in our spiritual journey where we have to be very careful. Because even though God’s love is ours, if we want to receive it fully we must conquer the opposite energy in us that tries to turn us away from the light. Deliberately and with great determination, we need to turn that energy also toward the light.

The Prodigal Son had to be completely humbled before he could find his way back to the father. He had lost everything, but as soon as he strongly desired to be with his father again, and as soon as he walked onto his father’s land, the father ran toward him and showered him with his love, despite the son’s humbled circumstances and shame.

At the deepest level of our being, we need to accept that we are intimately united with God. We are never far from God, but we’ve simply stopped paying attention.

Now, one of the wonderful things about living in a spiritual community, and about having a spiritual family, is that we get to practice being fearless in our willingness to accept the reality of God’s love, and to feel that love flowing through us to each other.

In the 1930s, Paramhansa Yogananda created two separate Christmas customs for his disciples. He set up the yearly Christmas celebration so that it would have two parts. One side was the annual Christmas all-day-meditation. We still have that custom in our Sangha, where we come together and meditate for eight hours. And then we have what Yogananda called “social Christmas.”

You might think, “This is a holy occasion. Let’s just get together and go into the silence and meditate on Christ.”

But Master wanted us to have the other side as well, because he knew that it’s important for us to practice the social way of communing with God.

When Yogananda started his work in America, he called it “Self-Realization,” and then he added “Fellowship.” Because when we celebrate “social Christmas” we are enjoying fellowship with the Divine in each other.

In our spiritual lives, it’s important to honor the customs that the Masters have given us. It’s easy to start analyzing them and pulling them apart with the intellect. But we have to understand with our whole hearts why the masters have given us these things.

Some people are more social and gregarious by nature, and some are more quiet and reserved. And it’s not as if the masters expect us to be the same. But we need to understand that it isn’t enough simply to love God inside, because we must also feel a certain freedom to expand that love and let it flow through us to our fellow disciples. It’s an important point, because whenever we expand the love of our hearts, we open channels for the love of God to flow through us.

We need to be comfortable enough in our self to be able to expand our hearts to the world in which we’re living. It’s somewhat ironic that I’m saying this, because even though I play a public role, when I’m not in that role my nature is very withdrawn. So it’s a contradiction that I’ve learned to live with.

In the beginning of Ananda, we counted our numbers in the dozens, but now we’re hundreds. And whenever I wander up at Ananda Village to attend one of these big mill-abouts where hundreds of people are interacting, I find it interesting to observe my own discomfort. And then I have to ask myself: what is it that I’m so nervous about?

It’s a good question to ask. What is it that makes it so difficult for me to relax and let whatever energy is going on around me just be what it is? Do I imagine that in this big crowd I’ll be judged? Am I simply reluctant to interact with others and accept them as they are? What is this oscillation in my heart that makes it so difficult?

Swami Kriyananda, SRW 1975
Swami Kriyananda gives a talk at Spiritual Renewal Week, 1975. A small crowd, compared to the milling hundreds who gather for SRW today. Click to enlarge.

Now, that’s not a small question. It isn’t a question that we can dismiss by simply waving it away and saying, “Get over it, Asha.”

Why am I so nervous, unable to accept the world as it is and move through it without fear? It’s because of the restless vibrations of my heart that are also keeping me from knowing God.

Why am I not, at all times, able to move comfortably in the presence of the light? Why can’t I be, as Trailanga Swami described Lahiri Mahasaya, “a kitten, remaining wherever the Divine has placed him.”

Why can’t I be content to be picked up by the Divine Mother, and happy to be wherever She places me?

I’ve developed a strategy for being in crowds. Whenever I have to be in a place that’s full of people, I like to find a place where I can sit with my back against the wall. I find it grounding and comforting. And if hunger moves me, I’ll get up and fill my plate, but I try to return to the same seat. Because by centering myself in the midst of the swirling crowd, I find that I can start to feel God in these various forms, and to feel that they are waves on the same ocean of Spirit.

What keeps me from loving open-heartedly? And more seriously, what keeps me from receiving the love that God is always trying to extend to me?

The most difficult part of the relationship with God is receiving Him, because of this agitation in the heart. What will I say if this person comes up to me? What if it’s someone I don’t particularly like, or who always makes conversation that I don’t want to hear?

What is it that we’re afraid of? It’s a valuable question to ask.

I was in seclusion years ago, and I was having a wonderful time loving God. And then it occurred to me that I should try to receive God’s love as well. And I found it surprisingly difficult. Not from a sense of being unworthy. But when I tried to open my heart, I found it oscillating with so many non-divine feelings. In my case, they were feelings of annoyance, of hurt, of holding onto old concerns, and self-concern.

These are the things that make us prodigal sons, and that keep us from returning to our true home – the restlessness of the heart.

God wants to put a precious ring on our finger and sandals on our feet and throw His arms around our neck and hold us close to His heart. But we’re too busy oscillating – vibrating with “I don’t like this, I don’t like that, I want this, I don’t want that, I’m angry about this, I’m upset about that.”

There was a little boy in India who kept talking about a village not far from where his family lived. It turned out that a man in the village had murdered him in his previous life. Finally, the family took the little boy to the village, where he led them to his grave and pointed at the man who had murdered him.

It caused a great upset for the villagers. But if you’re dying with anger, and the last thing you think is, “How dare you!” – then you’ll be born again with that vibration, and you’ll have the opportunity to see where it leads.

Someone mistreats you, someone you love betrays you, or a deep desire goes unfulfilled and you die without resolving it. And where does that energy go? It’s stored right here in the spine. And that restless energy needs to be resolved before we can be completely still in our heart and receive God.

That’s the prodigal son in us who wanders off and squanders his inheritance, and suffers so much that he no longer cares. He doesn’t care about the shame, because he only wants to return to the father who loved him.

So it’s very true that the only thing that matters is what Paula said when she thought she was dying: “I am a good devotee, and I love God.”

That’s what the poor prodigal son came to. “I have a father of infinite wealth. I belong to Him. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past, I’m going back to Him.”

It isn’t something we need to wait for until the next big catastrophe. If we wait for the catastrophe, guess what, we’ll get to live through a catastrophe. In fact, that’s why catastrophes happen.

But we can choose to take the better path, and pray, “Make me free. Help me to be a good son or daughter.” And perhaps we’ll hold up the little cup of our heart to God and he’ll put a bomb in it and blow it up. A tremendous loss happens – a death, a fatal diagnosis – and it’s exactly the answer to our prayer. But we can’t see it, because we cling to the trivial comforts and pleasures of this life.

We cling insistently – “This is what I must have!” Instead of humbly accepting what God is asking of us.

Paramhansa Yogananda wanted to create communities like Ananda to help us understand that we need to be concerned not only with our inward relationship with God, but we also need to express that relationship among others. The social path to God brings a tremendous release of the little ego-self. And that release can come in one of two ways: when we’ve been beaten to the ground so completely that we simply give up; or it can come when we decide to move ahead of that wall of fire, by working courageously to expand our hearts.

So let us start now to be what we were meant to be. Our mantra can be simple: “I am a good devotee. I love God”

We need to practice it every moment. “Oh, my goodness, I said an unkind word.” “Oh dear, I feel uncomfortable in this crowd of people, and I want to go and sit in the closet.” Just remember: “I’m a very good devotee, and I really love God.”

Starting where I am, I will open my heart and welcome God, no matter what my heart is holding.

I wrote some English words to the classic Indian chant, “Sri Ram, Jai Ram.” I gave it the words: “God’s love, God’s love, flows purely through me. From darkness and doubt, forever I’m free.”

The chant works for me, because it came out of a terrible time. I had behaved about as badly as possible. I went off to my meditation room, and then what could I say? You can only say “I’m sorry” so many times. But then you’ll just become a sorry kind of person.

So we have to turn toward the light – “From darkness and doubt, forever I’m free.” The darkness in us is the delusive thought that we are not the light. But we need to consider that whatever we’ve done is completely irrelevant in the larger context of this great drama of God. It’s a dream, and in the end all that matters is the light.

Swami Kriyananda said, “When enlightenment comes and you are standing there looking back at millions of incarnations, everything fades and all you see are those moments in which your spirit touched into the Infinite.” And, even now, that’s the only thing that is real, you see, because everything else is a dream.

“I’m a good devotee, and I love God.” And God has never stopped loving me.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk at Sunday service on November 16, 2014.)

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